Books · Community · Culture · Reading · Reflection · Students

Book Clubs: Civil Rights Connections

Note: This post was written for a previous unit I led with my 8th graders during historical fiction book clubs that centered on the Civil Rights Movement. Many things that we discussed in that unit continue to feel resonant to me, and listening to these student voices is important.

For the past couple of weeks, my students have been studying the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They have varying degrees of background knowledge on the topic – many know Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but few of them know many details beyond the biggest names and moments. In order to learn more, students are in book clubs reading different books related to this time period, including New Boy, Warriors Don’t Cry, The Lions of Little Rock and Revolution. Our classes are following the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Historical Fiction Book Clubs. We are also watching a few documentaries from Teaching Tolerance to help them visualize what that movement felt like.

Last week, my students watched a documentary called A Time for Justice, which gives a basic overview of the Civil Rights Movement in about 40 minutes. I had students reflect on the video after watching, including a question that asked, “What personal connections do you make to this video?”

I was impressed and also saddened by some of their responses. I’ve included a few here.

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What struck me most about these responses is that there are still so many instances of injustice that happen today to which students connect. Even my 8th graders recognize how the struggles that African Americans faced during what we call the Civil Rights Movement are similar to those that many marginalized groups face today. Some of their connections are incredibly deep, painful even. Others note moments of injustice they see in their daily lives, even it is what we see as commonplace. Some made connections with amazing books they had read, like Dear Martin by Nic Stone and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

As 8th graders, my students are still figuring out the world around them. But at this moment in time, it feels like we all are. I want to give my students a space to reflect on their own connections to the world, to express what troubles them about what they see in the past and the present. As I read through these, I also think of how much these students have grown over the past nine months. Maybe I can’t teach them everything, but I can help them feel like they are heard. After reading these responses, I will continue to give my students opportunities like this to reflect and make connections, and to share some of these responses with others who may not have similar experiences. Getting books that cover these topics is also important. I will keeping searching for titles that I can recommend for students to not only see themselves, but also to view others’ experiences and learn from them. Building empathy is one of the most important things I can do as a teacher in today’s world.

Community · Culture · Environment · Students

Words Are Power

No surprise The Magic of Words book was my favorite.

I have always loved language and words! I know that sounds kind of weird, but it is true – crosswords, word searches, Boggle, UpWords, Scrabble, the Childcraft books that came with the World Book Encyclopedias, and Babysitters’ Club books filled many days when I was young. Then my favorite class in college – LINGUISTICS. I thought I was in heaven!

Words make us feel!

  • Excitement … my infant says momma (or something that sounds like momma) and tears immediately fill my eyes.
  • Fear … “I think we need to talk.”
  • Happiness … my 14-year-old says “Mom, I love you” (or anything at all to me).  Grief … “Pap has passed.”
  • Inspiration … Mom saying “I am proud of you” (yes – even at 43 this still matters).
  • Disappointment … “I am sorry, but we chose another candidate.”
  • Love – “I appreciate you.”

Language. This stringing together of words that we often take for granted is so important. It allows us to think together. It creates culture … language creates a community.

What we say and how we say it shows others what we think and how we feel – and it matters. A group of students is off task … a teacher says “Get back to work or you will be eating lunch with me.” Or “When you are off task it interferes with the learning of others and makes me feel frustrated.” Or “What is going on? What is getting in the way of your learning? How can I help you get back on track?”

Using we to describe our classroom communities, referring to our young learners as readers and writers, describing our English learners as developing bilinguals – all of these nuances are meaningful and convey different messages.

Recently a teacher shared a quote with me that reminded me of the power teachers as the adults in the room hold.

“The messages that students receive externally become the messages they give themselves.”

What messages are our students hearing? Are these messages what we want them to hear? We must be more careful with our words and never forget the power they hold!

ASSESSMENT · blogging · Community · Leading · Literacy · Students · Teacher Leadership · Uncategorized

Raising Voices in Secondary Classrooms

I had five minutes to inspire ELA teachers at Dublin’s Literacy Conference. This is what I said:

I co-teach 9th-grade inclusion English I at Dublin Coffman High School, and I’ve been to NCTE twice now.

There’s a LOT to love about NCTE. 

NCTE’s theme this year in Houston was “Raising Student Voice,” but what I’ve come to learn about the conference in the two years I’ve attended is that the learning transcends so much more than the year’s theme.

I got to attend the First Timer’s Breakfast this year as a table host, which was super exciting. I got to see Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell speak.

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The way Donalyn opened her speech will stick with me forever. She said, “Look around you. This is where you need to be. This is your family. This is your home.”

And she went on to talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are proactive in seeking out their own learning. Her wisdom can undoubtedly apply to today. I always consider Dublin’s Lit Conference to be a mini-NCTE. Look around. We may not know each other, but we are all related because we share common hopes and dreams for our students. So, to me, days like today are as much about professional development as they are about networking.

Donalyn also said this: “Kids need champions, but teachers do, too.”  Ain’t that the truth. We’ve all heard the statistics of teacher retention rates. And I’ll be honest here. Every year, as NCTE and as Dublin’s Literacy Conference approach, I start to hesitate. NCTE is RIGHT before Thanksgiving. I find myself asking do I have time for this? Shouldn’t I be home with my family preparing for the holidays? I’m tired, and I’m busy, and I’m wearing 100 hats, and I don’t feel good… Why do I keep signing myself up to go to these things? And then I go (because I already signed myself up for it), and get this: I NEVER regret it.

I never regret attending NCTE or DLC because of (1) the networking and (2) all the reminders as to why we became English teachers in the first place (like how to raise students’ voice). I don’t know about you, but when I don’t attend or participate in PD, I start to lose focus on what’s really at the heart of my job.

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So, I keep attending these conferences and surrounding myself with the people who also do because these people push me and praise me and help me find and reach my “true north.” This is a term that Kate Roberts used at NCTE. I figured out a few years ago that my “true north” when it comes to reading instruction is choice, and that has been the focus of much of my professional development over the last few years. I decided that in order to be a truly skilled teacher of reading, I better be a reader. I started reading YA books with my students, I worked on perfecting the art of the book talking, and I do all this because I strive to provide choice to insure success for all of my students.

This year, though, I’ve decided to put more focus on my writing instruction, and call me crazy, but I’ve decided that in order to be a truly talented teacher of writing, I need to be a writer.

Falling back in love with reading and identifying as a reader was easy for me. This new journey? Not so much. I’ve never in my life called myself a writer, and I don’t know how long it will take me to identify as one, but I’m trying.

A big part of this journey is a switch that I’ve made in my mind frame.

I used to teach writing with this in mind: “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” I always try to praise a few specific parts of students’ work before providing one or two pointed bits of criticism to show room for improvement.

Then I saw this:

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It stopped me in my tracks. I’m always the critic. I’m always either reading and analyzing student work or reading and analyzing literature, and let’s be honest, it’s a LOT easier to be the giver of criticism than the receiver.

So, if I haven’t made it clear by now: I’m currently mustering the courage to build a writing identity.

A group of educators for Dublin City Schools has taken on this journey together. We’ve started an educational blog, we meet in person monthly, and we try to post weekly.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.57.49 AMFor many of us, this is truly scary work for countless reasons. First and foremost, as someone at NCTE said, “Teachers, on a daily basis, are reminded of their failures.”  It isn’t often that we are reminded of our successes. So, it’s scary to write about the happenings of our classrooms in a public forum that is open to criticism.

Someone else at NCTE said, “Every student has a story. The most dangerous presumption is that they don’t want their voices heard.”

Now that I’ve started to write beside my students, I’m coming to learn that every teacher has a story, too, and the world needs teachers’ voices. I read this on teachthought a few days ago:

“In the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal legislation that guides education policy in this country, the words accountability and assessment are mentioned in some capacity at least 250 times each.

The words teaching and learning? 22 times.

Combined.”

This is scary stuff because we all know words have power. I want you to ask yourself this today:

Who is currently writing the story of what happens inside your classroom? Whose voice is loudest?

In these ways, I’m learning how to raise student voice while simultaneously learning how to raise mine:

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And these are just to name a few. As I continue this journey to becoming a writer, I will share more on how my teaching of writing improves.

If you had five minutes in front of a room of ELA educators, what would you say?

Books · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

Making the Wrong Choice

This past fall, my teaching partner, Jen, and I decided to do a round of historical fiction book clubs before we had our students dive in and write historical fiction narratives. I spent the better part of a week looking at titles and curating what I thought was an excellent list. My personal experience with historical fiction appropriate for 8th graders was fairly limited — a LOT of it was focused on WWII and Holocaust stories, a product of teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night for years. I wanted to find a wider range of options.

When a teacher assigns book choices to students, she wants to make sure she is giving them the best options — high interest, variety of subjects and ability levels, and her own excitement for the books. Students can be convinced to read something they feel a little “meh” about if their teacher gives it a good recommendation. Sometimes, this feels like a lot of pressure! I pulled books from ones I had read, but also took to GoodReads and other teachers’ recommendations before finalizing my list of 11 books they could choose from. However, I did what I probably shouldn’t have done — I put some books on the list that neither Jen nor I had read. I checked the website Common Sense Media for those books, and all seemed fine.

Until I started reading one of them.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina is an exciting, terrifying, and heartbreaking novel. It’s an excellent version of historical fiction that really grabs the reader, and focuses on a time period that isn’t usually the subject of young adult novels: the summer of 1977 in New York City, when the Son of Sam murders were taking place.

Our 8th graders were drawn to the description of this book and quite a few book club groups chose it as their selection. As I started to have my doubts on whether this book was “appropriate” as a recommended choice, I justified that some of the more mature content was okay for 8th graders. I even told myself that most of the kids who had chosen this book were already reading more mature books in their independent reading lives.

But then I kept reading. And more red flags kept popping up. I could envision parent emails and calls questioning my school-sanctioned book club choice. Then I realized I had forgotten to check if this title was approved by our district for 8th graders. It wasn’t.

I jumped into action, emailing Jen and letting her know that we had to pull this book. I posted on our class page that groups would have to choose a new title. I came up with a plan to offer a couple of other books instead, and give them two more days to get their books. The next day in class, I talked to my groups and explained the situation, apologized if they had already gotten the book. I told them they were welcome to read it on their own — but the school couldn’t sponsor it as a class read. Some kids were initially annoyed, but they didn’t mention it again after the day I talked to them. They had moved on, and it didn’t become an issue. Crisis averted.

If you have the chance to read Burn Baby Burn, do it. It’s a fantastic story. I’m hoping some of my students will still read it (and maybe be even more intrigued now!). But I’m definitely going to read any new books before I offer them as class reads for kids.

ASSESSMENT · Goal Setting · Reflection · Students

Alternate Exams: Turning Assessments Into Opportunities

Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.

With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.

The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

We made this decision for many reasons. Very few  English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.

While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:

  • We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
  • We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
  • We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
  • We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
  • “We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
  • We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer  

Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.

For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:

  • To reflect and practice metacognition
  • To revisit old work
  • To set future learning goals
  • To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
  • To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
  • To review why we do what we do in English class  
  • “Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
  • “Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski

Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)

One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”

At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:

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And here are some student responses:

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Surprising Findings:

  • What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
  • What students are most proud of
  • Students fessing up to being lazy
  • Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
  • Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
  • Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
  • Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)

Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?

Classroom Libraries · co-teaching · Culture · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching · Uncategorized

Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students

img_3133Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students 

Introduction

This year, I read both Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice by Kate Roberts, and these books inspired me to make huge changes. Most notably, Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I used these two texts to collaboratively make changes to our end-of-the-year unit surrounding The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Novel Approach

Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.

The Debate:

Whole-class texts: Independent reading:
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).” “Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice

I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.

Empower

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Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.

 

With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.33.38 PMIn addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.

You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.

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Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.

We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.

Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.  

Critical Questions

1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:

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WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods).  We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here: 

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WATCH VIDEO HERE!

WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion

WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit

HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations

LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.

 

Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!

blogging · co-teaching · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

It’s Not About the Donuts: When the Learner is the Teacher

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My students teach me so much. I mean that. I feel like I’m always apologizing to my 1st period class.

I’ll use today as an example, but first, let me back up a step.

We have been working on persuasion. We studied the rhetorical devices (repetition, parallelism, analogy) used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Students practiced using those devices in their own writing. Students performed persuasive skits using ethos, pathos, and logos. We then analyzed Super Bowl commercials for persuasive techniques. Now, students are embarking upon a journey to practice persuasive writing and argumentative writing which we spent Monday distinguishing.

Here is a list of differences that  students generated:

Persuasive Writing Argumentative Writing
  • Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
  • Supported with persuasive techniques
  • Informal
  • Supported with facts and statistics
  • Involves two sides
    • counterclaim/rebuttal
  • Involves research
    • Investigative
  • More formal

Tuesday, we officially started our persuasive writing unit. We told each class that they’d work together to write and publish a blog, so each class period voted on a topic. Our desks are in groups of four, and we asked groups to discuss the topic and then craft claims. This caused quite a bit of fun, healthy debate, but in each class period, we were able to come to a decision.

  • Period 1: The driving age should be lowered to 15.5, and teens should be able to get their temps by 14.5.
  • Period 2: Dublin Coffman High School should start at 9:00AM (instead of 7:55).
  • Period 3:Schools should never completely block social media use nor search engines, but these technologies should be heavily monitored.
  • Period 5:Dublin Coffman High School should adopt an open campus schedule like colleges.
  • Period 6:The legal drinking age should be raised to twenty-five.

We showed students a model from last year as well as the requirements of the assignment.

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We have 7 groups of desks in our classroom, so we decided to have groups volunteer to complete different parts of our persuasive blog post, so three groups chose three different persuasive techniques, three other groups claimed the rhetorical devices, and one group found media to include. This all happened on Monday, and it was AWESOME. It went so well, in fact, that I emailed our literacy coach to brag. I just knew that she’d be so proud of all the modeling, scaffolding, and most importantly, learning happening in our room.

Fast-forward to today. I enter 1st period with 1 goal in mind. I want the whole class to collaboratively work on piecing together the parts of the blog that groups crafted separately yesterday. I tell them this. I stand at the board and ask students to help me outline our blog. One student helps me do this. One student. One. So, we are not off to a great start when it comes to collaboratively writing a blog post, but I have high hopes for the next part. I ask a student from each group to get on a shared Google Doc. I ask them to copy and paste their group’s work from yesterday into the document. This takes longer than expected, and as I look around the room, only the 7 students logged onto the document are engaged in organizing the blog. The other 20 are not interested in what we are doing no matter how hard I try to redirect their attention to what is happening on the projector. It doesn’t take me long to realize that THIS IS NOT WORKING. It’ll be torture to continue this for another 30 minutes, and I definitely can’t continue this all day long, so after 10 minutes of this unbearable struggle, I abandon ship and QUICKLY come up with an alternative.

I tell 1st period, “I’m sorry guys, and I’m sorry again for having to apologize to your class period so often, but this is not working like I imagined it would. I really wanted us all to craft a blog together, but this is just not going well, so here’s what we’re going to do. Students currently on the Google Doc, make a copy of the document and then share your copy with the rest of your group that you’re sitting with now and that you worked with yesterday. You’re now going to work in teams of just four rather than as a whole class. I want you to act like you’re a real editing team for a real blog. Turn what you and your classmates came up with yesterday into a cohesive blog. The best blog of the class wins donuts tomorrow, and I’ll also publish your blog to my real blog. You only have until the rest of the period. Ready? Go!”

And just like that, all students are involved again, and many are more invested in their writing than I have ever seen before!

… and then we run out of time.

Darn.

I’ll have to give them more time tomorrow….  

BUT, at least I know what to do 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th period because I have learned so much about what not to do during 1st period.

2nd period enters, and so does my co-teacher, Deb (she was in a meeting during 1st period). I get the students all set up to use the entire period productively in groups of four, and I use the same incentives of donuts and the most authentic audience I can conceivably provide on the spot(this blog). I fill Deb in on the debacle of 1st period.

We watch second period closely. We celebrate. We celebrate because we’ve been reading Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, and therefore, we no longer want to make decisions for our students that they can make for themselves. Our conversation goes something like this:

“This is going so much better than last period”

“This is good. I like this.”

“They’re struggling, and struggling is good.”

“They’re having to use each other and their resources instead of us. ”

“You’re right! Remember last year?

“We gave them a blog template to fill in. That was dumb.”

“We designed their blogs for them and removed all of the creative fun on accident”

“Look at them arguing over titles and fonts this year.”

“They’re really getting into it!”

We continue to watch closely. We circle the room. We listen to conversations. We mostly try to remain hands-off so that students figure it out on their own. Toward the end, we start to peek over shoulders. Many of the blogs don’t look like blogs at all. They look like a bunch of copied and pasted elements lacking any cohesive whole. Even the blogs that look like blogs don’t really read like blogs. We troubleshoot, and we try to explain this quickly before they head out the door.

3rd period enters.  We know what to do now. We explain everything just as we did last period including the donut incentive and semi-authentic audience deal, but this time, we get them set up for even more success than our 1st and 2nd periods by showing the model again and emphasizing what the end product should look like. We watch closely. It’s going well but not perfectly. I notice that some groups are totally engaged. I pick up on the fact that some students really want to win the donuts. Some students really want to show up on my blog. Some students just want to win. Some students are not engaged. Some students are letting their group members carry all the weight, so Deb and I chat.

“This is going pretty well, but it could be better. Why aren’t all our kids empowered?”

I think about the Empower book again.

What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?

“Next period, let’s let students pick their own groups. I don’t think we’d see the lack of engagement if we let them pick their own groups.”

“Let’s try it!”

5th period enters. We really know what to do now. As students walk in, we tell them to choose their own seats and to choose wisely because they’re expected to communicate well and work collaboratively. We show the model and explain expectations. We incentivize with donuts and a chance to appear on this blog. Groups are working fanatically! Everyone is engaged. This is what teachers dream of.

I watch closely. I keep thinking. I start to worry. I’m a worrier. This is going well… right? I’m not just imagining it, am I? It took a lot to get here. I bribed kids with donuts. I’m pretty sure that’s a huge pedagogical NO-NO, but I was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They look engaged. They even look empowered. I wonder what would have happened if I had never mentioned donuts, but I can’t renege on that now.

6th period enters. Despite my worries, we do everything the same as 5th period because it worked and because I can’t offer donuts to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th period without offering them to 6th period. Deb and I stand in the middle and watch closely. There’s no doubt;  they’re engaged; they’re empowered. They’re working so hard, and they’re learning so much. They bell is about to ring, and one group is arguing. I listen.

“We should NOT have all of our names in the header.”

“Yeah, then all our names show up on EVERY page!”

“Yes, we should! It looks good!”

“No, we shouldn’t. It looks dumb!”

[warning bell rings]

“Mrs. Belden will just remove our names anyways.”

“Yeah, because we’re going to win and make it on her blog.”

“Well, we’re NOT going to win with our names on EVERY page!”

“Yeah, remove the names so that we can win the donuts!”

“We’re not going to win guys. We’re NOT going to get the donuts!”

“YES, we ARE going to win the donuts!”

“Guys, we did really good today, AND IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DONUTS!!!”

“Yeah, IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!” [boys exit in fits of laughter]

The room is empty, and I’m sitting at my desk smiling like a fool because they have NO IDEA what a journey the day has been.

WINNING BLOGS:

Culture · Environment · Students · Writing Workshop

Slowing Down for Writing Success

It seems like everyone is in such a hurry these days – me included at times. This past week my older daughter was in a hurry to get to work. As she prepared to turn into her workplace, there was a car taking up most of her turn lane. She was going too fast to stop and allow the car to make its turn, so she ran up onto the curb HARD. The impact slashed a hole in her tire which was flat by the time she parked. (Luckily she was at her place of work and didn’t have to pull over on a road, and she was completely safe.) There were tears when she called and plenty of panic. Once we took some time to process what happened, our conversation consisted of “What could you have done?” and “Would things have been ok if you had slowed down and allowed the vehicle in your way to get out of the way?”

As I spent a few days processing this incident, I was reminded of the fact that even in my classroom I am often rushing to get to the end goal. Sometimes it is with reading a shared text or with a writing project. Teachers often ponder where to find more time and sometimes if it’s worth it to take the time.

My learners recently embarked on a narrative writing assignment from brainstorming to first draft to revising to a final draft. As a teaching team, we chose from the beginning to slow down and spend time before putting pencil to paper or fingers to a keyboard to begin the stories. Using “data” from the previous year’s students’ struggles, we knew that taking the time to fully research and to fully develop a character was important. That meant spending multiple days in class asking students to plan and get ready for writing.

Believe me, there were quite a few students who said, “Can’t we just write?” I explained that I had watched students struggle the previous year to fully develop characters and to write narratives that had a theme (which is required by Ohio’s standards for eighth grade writers). Students spent two days researching the time period for their historical narratives, three days working on who the characters were going to be, and another day on story arcs. Several lessons were modeled on Units of Study for Teaching Writing K-8.

The next week, the writers in my classes began to compose their first drafts. As they worked all they needed was time. Often they would walk into class itching to get to the Chromebooks. It was a slow process for some as they’d sit and stare at their computers or their notes. It was a quick process for others whose fingers would fly as they got into their writing. After about a week of drafting in class, most first drafts were complete. Others were finished quickly after.

Then we took a break. Just like my daughter, I asked my students to process and think about what had happened. This time away gave them a different perspective, and it also gave them ideas about what to do next and what to do the next time they looked at their drafts.

During the “break”, I read the historical narratives and gave feedback – the positives and the places where extra work was needed.

The third week of work brought us to our revising phase. There were many small group mini-lessons offered for both extension and refinement areas. Every day in class was offered as time to revise and edit. Again, we took our time.

I sometimes feel like taking “time” is undervalued in education. There’s so much to cover or we have to get to ____________ before the semester is over. I try to never let myself feel like this in my classroom. My students did good work this past week. There were many conversations between writing partners. I saw students going back to do more research on the time period. Quite a few students worked on elaborating with characters and theme. The use of dialogue was examined and questioned. Drafts were scrutinized and edited.

Slowing down is a good reminder for all of us – whether we’re driving in a car or working with students. I still have to remind myself of this in my classroom, but I firmly believe that my students are better writers because of the time we take working through the process.

 

Reading · Students · Writing Workshop

Building Stamina

As I work my way through the first mile of my long run, I usually hit a point when I want to give up. I’m too tired. My stomach aches. Did I just come down on my ankle wrong? There’s always some excuse that I could give for turning around and going home. Rarely, if there really is a problem, I let myself. Most of the time though, I stick with it and push through. I have to build my running stamina, or I would never be able to reach my goals.

While running those long runs (anywhere from 6-12 miles), I am reminded of this idea of stamina. My mind tends to wander when I run, and I can always make clear connections between what my students face as readers and writers, and what I face as a runner.

I get it – we all have things that are challenging for us. For me, running keeps me in shape, but it’s not always easy. Most days, I don’t want to lace up my Hokas and pump out those miles. But the feeling I have when I am done, when I have accomplished something even though it was hard getting started, is so rewarding.

I work toward running long distances because I know it is good for me, and that I have set a goal (usually a half marathon, or 13.1 miles), that I am working toward. It takes a while to build up to the longer distance – I can’t go out and run 12 miles at the beginning of my training, when the farthest I can usually go is six. (And I can only get those six in because I’m always making sure I’m keeping up with some sort of running plan in the “off season” – it’s like students’ summer break!) However, I need to keep this in mind when thinking about expectations for my students – I can’t expect some of them to be able to write a 2-page paper because they’re struggling through that first paragraph.

There’s always a point, a hump, that you have to get over when working on something that takes extended effort. For me as a runner, that point is mile 1 (why is the first mile always so dang hard?), and hitting the halfway point. For students, this may be just getting words down on a page in writing workshop, or reading through a whole page without stopping during independent reading.

Even when I’m reading something that isn’t fully grabbing my attention, it takes me some checkpoints in order to push myself to keep going. Just read for 10 minutes. Finish this chapter.

There are moments when temporarily quitting is okay – injury (running), or just flat-out dislike for a story, character, or a writing style (reading). Most of the time though, we need to stick with it. What makes it hard is what makes it worth it. With practice, you only get stronger.

And that will make it easier next time.

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Environment · Students · Teaching

Writing Partners in an ELA Classroom

This blog is a testament to the power of writing and working with a group or a partner. As Rita and I explained in the “About” page of the blog, writing can be a daunting task – for adults and certainly for students too. Some people find that writing rolls right off the fingertips and others find it difficult. As I sit on this Labor Day morning at a Starbucks near my house, I find it challenging. The atmosphere seems perfect – coffee, laptop, beautiful sunrise, no TV or kids, inspiring music; however, I’ve been sitting for a while trying to decide where and how to start. My students are embarking this week on their first writing which will serve as a diagnostic tool for me and then they will take the initial draft to a final copy. I envision that starting the writing will be difficult for them too. Luckily, I have a group of writers to support me and who will give me honest, needed feedback before I publish this post.

For the last few years, I have tried to provide my students with the support that I have received from my writing friends by allowing them to work with a writing partner. The idea comes from Units of Study – Writing for Teaching Writing K-8 by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teacher’s College. I love how this has worked in my classroom. Writing partners start working together from the brainstorming phase of the writing process all the way through to the final product. The students get to know their partner’s writing almost as well as their own. There is definitely power in that.

Writing partners are NOT editors. I honestly have found very few eighth graders who are qualified to correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, or usage of their peers. Writing partners are question-askers and feedback-givers. Helping another person with writing is not something intuitive to most students/adults. We spend time in class learning about how to be a good writing partner. It is a process!

These are the main guidelines in my classroom for writing partners:

  • Read the writing carefully and think carefully about the goals for the piece
  • Offer constructive criticism – what MIGHT your partner change to make the writing better?
  • Give feedback on how to improve the writing – what can your partner do better?

With our first writing of the year, I introduced the concept of writing partners to the class. I modeled what working with a writing partner looks like by using this writing group. Along with discussion of how everyone (even J.K. Rowling) works through multiple versions and drafts of writing and how everyone elicits feedback from others, I showed students Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.04.24 AM.pngmy draft of an earlier blog post. We talked about how my writing partners read my writing carefully, gave me suggestions on how to make the writing better, and also what they liked about the piece.

Getting writing partners started is definitely a process. It isn’t easy sometimes. You will have partners who gel immediately and have the most amazing conversations about their writing. And you will have partners who struggle and need one-on-one guidance from you. Students get more comfortable working with a writing partner as the year goes on and the discussions expand to lengthy conversations. I firmly believe in the power of using writing partners and work throughout the year to make the experience worthwhile for every student.

Some things to consider when and if you want to incorporate writing partners into your writing workshop:

  1. How do you want to put partners together? Do you want to assign partners or let students choose their partners?
  2. Will you allow students to team up more than once throughout the school year?
  3. How do you want students to share their writing? Google Docs? Pass Writer’s Notebooks back and forth?
  4. What strategies will you have at the ready if the partnership isn’t working well?

Student thoughts on writing partners:

“Writing partners are very helpful for me because I am very appreciative of getting many opinions on my writing so that it can be exactly how I want it to be when I turn it in.  It’s very helpful, also, because writing partners are a fresh pair of eyes that can catch small mistakes that you did not previously see.” -Olivia B

“I like the use of a writing partner because after awhile you get sick of reading your essay over and over again and it starts to make all of it the same. In the end, it was nice to have fresh eyes to read it and suggest anything to add to or take away from my writing to make it the best it can be.”  – Alyssa H.

“The good thing about our writing partners is that we had someone to ask a question whether it was about a word or if a sentence made any sense.  Also, they gave us some constructive criticism which helped make our essays better.” – Scott S.

I love reading student reflections at the end of a writing unit, and I always elicit feedback about writing partners. These responses help to validate the choice to incorporate partnerships into daily practice. I don’t know what I would do without my partners, and oftentimes, my students feel the same.